Why We All Need the Biblical Languages

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I have the privilege of teaching Greek. It’s one of my favorite classes to teach. But for many of my students, it is one of the hardest classes they take for their degree. Thus, one of my primary pedagogical goals is to instill a conviction in my students of the importance of a working knowledge of the languages when teaching the Bible. My hope is that the stronger the conviction, the more determined they will be to get through their coursework and the more motivated to continue to utilize and build upon their knowledge in their ministries. I hope my words will also encourage you in your teaching ministry to emphasize the significance of learning and using the biblical languages.

Temptations to skip learning biblical languages

There are many temptations for students either to bypass learning biblical Hebrew and Greek altogether, or to just get by with good enough grades to pass their language classes and earn their degrees.

My dean once observed that many seminaries no longer require the languages because there are so many great Bible software programs available (especially Logos!). However, does having a platform to work with the languages mean that you are qualified to speak authoritatively on the meaning of a given grammatical construction? Does the existence of tools like Logos mean that biblical languages should no longer be a required track in the training of our ministers of the Word?

To me, this idea is troublesome. It sounds a lot like cancelling calculus or other high-level math classes for an engineering degree because the students have calculators. I took calculus, and if I hadn’t studied it, I would not have known how to use my TI-84 to its fullest potential. If an engineer does not know the fundamentals of calculus, they won’t be able to visualize the kinds of problems that need to be solved. Nor will they be able to recognize when calculations are incorrect. Similarly, understanding the grammar of the biblical languages is fundamental to using Bible software effectively. It also helps one recognize if a certain bias has been inserted into a definition of a word, or interpretation of a phrase. This kind of thing is unavoidable in commentaries and linguistic tools that we use. Knowing the issues involved and the complexity of interpretation helps pastors and teachers to prayerfully weigh evidence and discern truth. So a temptation to omit study of the languages because of the availability of Bible software is one we as professors need to help our students overcome.

Understanding the grammar of the biblical languages is fundamental to using Bible software effectively.

Lately I have heard more than one sermon in which the preacher admitted ignorance of Greek. Instead, these preachers admitted they had relied on Google (cringe). As professors, we know that internet searches are not a reliable way to research and prepare sermons. Yet, we live in an age where this type of content gathering is increasingly pervasive. Throw in the new artificial intelligence chatbots, like ChatGPT, and it really does seem like we are in a growing battle for accuracy and integrity in interpretation. Hopefully, pastors would not resort to artificial intelligence, but if Google-for-sermon-prep has become the new norm, we ought to be intentional about fiercely preparing the next generation of leaders to eschew these kinds of easy interpretive answers.

For the vast majority of students, learning Greek or Hebrew is very challenging. But hopefully, those of us teaching in seminary settings understand their importance and will pass that understanding on to our students.

How can we inspire a love and passion for the original languages?

Seminary Professors, Meet Your On-Call Research Assistant

1. Make it obvious that you are passionate about the languages

Tell your students plainly how much you love Hebrew and/or Greek. Demonstrate passion in the way you teach and in the things you discuss. Perhaps some of you are like some of my friends who lack any passion for these languages, but have been tasked with teaching languages by their department chair. If that is you, spend some time with those who do love this discipline. Let their devotion rub off on you and, with humility, try to learn from them. Most of all, pray for your own passion to be ignited and to grow.

2. Go off topic in class

My colleague Ken Berding reminds me that Greek is not taught; it is learned. Yes, I lecture on the grammar and try to provide helpful mnemonic devices. We work through translation exercises in class. I highlight grammatical points of importance. But I also try to provide points of discussion on the significance of the grammar to demonstrate how knowing Greek deepens our understanding of the New Testament. When I can, I introduce some kind of devotional or theological thought rooted in grammar that will help my students see the significance of what we are learning. At times this practice has led into deeper and longer discussions than I intended. Yet, the students often say those are their favorite class sessions. I believe such discussions begin to ignite that fire for them even while they suffer through the arduousness of memorizing vocabulary and paradigms.

3. Remind them of the intended benefits of language study

First, language study should help students attain a more accurate interpretation of Scripture. We are all in process, of course. Having knowledge of the original languages is not going to make anyone perfect in their understanding and presentation of God’s Word. But Hebrew and Greek provide more tools in the interpretive toolkit; they provide categories for thinking more deeply about the text.

Second, the languages are necessary for thoughtful reading of commentaries. The best academic resources utilize the languages fluidly, with the expectation that the reader is conversant with the requisite exegetical lingo. Much will be lost if commentary readers have little or no grasp on the grammar.

Third, the languages force readers to slow down in their reading, to think harder about the text. Slower reading often provides Bible interpreters the opportunity to ask more probing questions about the text—which leads to deeper reflection. It also provides space for more meditation on the text, which yields deeper reliance upon the Holy Spirit for understanding.

Fourth, Hebrew and Greek have a humbling effect (or at least they should!). Some take what little knowledge they have of the languages and flaunt it before others. This is something I warn all of my students against. Reading the Word of God itself should humble us by the very nature of encountering God in his special revelation to us. There we are reminded that we are sinners in need of a Savior, while we are also reminded of God’s tremendous mercy, love, and grace for us. Then, of course, there are the repeated commands to be humble (1 Pet 5:6; Col 3:12; Eph 4:2; etc.). But reading the Bible in the original languages takes that humility to the next level, as it challenges our intellect and memory. The struggle itself is humbling. I think we need to help our students embrace the struggle.

Finally, an informed reading of the languages also helps ward off heresy. As I sat down this morning to write, two Jehovah’s Witnesses came to our door. My husband loves sharing that his wife teaches New Testament Greek and that we would love to have a conversation about how we can be certain about the New Testament’s teaching that Jesus is indeed God, not just a god. Knowing Greek grammar is especially important to be able to demonstrate that the New World Translation gets it wrong in (infamous) places like John 1:1.

4. Admit what you don’t know

I wonder if the implicit goal of complete fluency hinders some of our students from persevering. So when we as teachers demonstrate that we don’t know everything about Hebrew or Greek, I think this has a liberating effect on our students. Maybe they don’t have to know everything, either. We are always in process, always learning and striving to grow. It is that journey of learning that I want my students to be committed to, so I strive to show my students that I am still on that journey too.

5. Commit to praying for your students

I always encourage my students to pray during every study session. We must all discipline ourselves to depend upon the Holy Spirit in every aspect of our lives and ministries. Our students must learn to depend on God now in the process of learning as they prepare for a path of teaching ahead. Let’s pray with them both publicly in the classroom and privately on our own. Let’s pray not only that they might endure to the end of the courses we teach, but that they might carry on a conviction to continue using and growing in what they have learned.

My list is not meant to be exhaustive. I could go on to discuss other important reasons to study Greek (e.g., getting a grasp on things like textual criticism, history of interpretation, etc.), and I would love to provide more concrete examples of how to ignite a passion for languages. In fact, I would be delighted to see any of you add your thoughts in the comments both on the importance of knowing the languages and on how to inspire students. The idea behind this article, however, is that even seminary professors need their fires stoked from time to time. We need to be reminded of why we do what we do, and how important it is to keep modeling for and instructing our students regarding the significance of what we teach. I hope this piece has encouraged you.

For all seminary professors

I have a final word to share for those of you who do not teach Greek or Hebrew. I believe all seminary professors have a role in cultivating a conviction and passion for the languages. I recall a few different theology professors during my own seminary education who regularly incorporated insights from the original languages into their teaching. This kind of modeling was powerful and effective for me. I hear from my current Greek students that many of our theology professors are still doing the same. So, if we aren’t modeling a teaching rooted in a knowledge of the biblical languages throughout the whole duration of our seminary-teaching careers, how can we expect our students to carry this conviction into their own ministries? Please demonstrate to your students, even if it is not your primary subject matter, how you use the languages in your area of expertise.

I close with a thought from Heinrich Bitzer, whose devotional has been highlighted by John Piper. He says:

The more a theologian detaches himself from the basic Hebrew and Greek text of Holy Scripture, the more he detaches himself from the source of real theology! And real theology is the foundation of a fruitful and blessed ministry.1

I pray for more fruitful and blessed ministry for all of us, and our students.

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  1. Heinrich Bitzer, ed., Light on the Path: Daily Scripture Readings in Hebrew and Greek (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1982), 10.
Written by
Jeanette Pifer

Jeanette Hagen Pifer (PhD, Durham University) is affiliate professor of New Testament at Biola University/Talbot School of Theology. Her research focused on the Pauline concept of faith. Pifer has presented academic papers at a number of conferences in the US and in Europe. She has published a handful of book chapters and a couple of books, including her PhD dissertation: 'Participation by Faith' (Mohr Siebeck, 2018). She also contributed to the Lightfoot Legacy, a three-volume set of previously unpublished commentaries by this foremost English New Testament scholar of the nineteenth century.

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Written by Jeanette Pifer
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